45) The second pillar of our model would set up a legal expectation that parents jointly develop a parenting plan before any court hearing is held on matters related to post separation parenting. The court’s role would then be to ratify the negotiated plan. Through direct negotiation, parent education programs, court-based or independent mediation, or lawyer negotiation, a parenting plan that outlines the parental responsibilities that will meet the needs of their children would be developed before any court hearing is held. This does not require parents to negotiate face to face, but it is aimed at helping them negotiate in the future, as any post-separation living arrangement, whether shared equally or unequally, requires some form of ongoing communication. In the interest of parental autonomy, parents are deemed to have the capacity to resolve their own dispute, rather than surrendering decision-making regarding parenting arrangements to the court system.
Children’s needs for protection from parental conflict are addressed by this legal expectation, as children’s needs become a means of connecting the parents in a positive direction at a time when conflict has divided them. Parents in conflict would be steered toward an “introduction to mediation” session.
Mediation, as an alternative method of dispute resolution, has considerable (and as yet largely untapped) potential in establishing shared parenting as the norm, rather than the exception, for divorced families. In the majority of non-violent “high conflict” cases, both parents are capable and loving caregivers and have at least the potential to minimize their conflict and cooperate with respect to their parenting responsibilities within a shared parenting framework.
With a legal presumption of shared parental responsibility as the cornerstone, mediation could become the instrument whereby parents could be assisted in the development of a child-focused parenting plan. Parents who are oriented to the divorce process and the impact of divorce on family members are better prepared for mediation, and better able to keep the needs of their children at the forefront of their negotiations. Divorce education programs also offer a means to expose divorcing populations to mediation as an alternative mechanism of dispute resolution Further, an educative approach should be an integral part of the mediation process, with a primary focus on children’s needs during and after the divorce process. Family mediators with expertise in the expected effects of divorce on children and parents can be instrumental in helping parents to recognize the potential psychological, social and economic consequences of divorce and, on that foundation, promote parenting plans conducive to children maintaining meaningful, positive post-divorce relationships.
Parent education regarding children’s needs and interests during and after the divorce transition, followed by a therapeutic approach to divorce mediation, offers a highly effective and efficient means of facilitating the development of cooperative shared parenting plans. Within such an approach, parent education may be used to introduce the option of shared parenting as a viable alternative, and to reduce parents’ anxiety about this new living arrangement. Mediation would then help parents work through the development of the parenting plan, and implementing the plan in as cooperative a manner as possible.
Of all the strategies that can be used by divorcing parents to reduce the harmful effects of divorce on their children, most important is the development and maintenance of a cooperative co-parenting relationship. Children’s adjustment post-divorce in a long-term shared parenting arrangement is facilitated by a meaningful routine relationship with each parent; an absence of hostile comments about the other parent; consistent, safe, structured, and predictable care giving environments without parenting disruptions; healthy, caring, low-conflict relationships with each parent; and parents’ emotional health and well being. Any model of long-term support for high-conflict divorced families should focus on these factors to produce positive outcomes for children and their parents.
It is particularly important that hostility between parents be minimized following divorce. Currently, in cases where there is ongoing litigation between parents, children are at greater risk of emotional damage than in less contentious circumstances; in many cases, divorce does not end marital conflict, but exacerbates it.
It is important that children see the good qualities in both of their parents, and that parent’s work toward the development of positive relationships with each other. An effective support system is instrumental in providing parents with the necessary skills to deal with co-parenting challenges: “the central tenets of this system should be to reduce conflict, assure physical security, provide adequate support services to reduce harm to children and to enable the family to manage its own affairs”. In order for such a system to be successful, allied professionals need to be supportive of a model that helps resolve family disputes and focuses on the welfare of the children.